The first part of Keith Abbott's 1983 piece on Brautigan
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Garfish, Chili Dogs, and the Human Torch: Memories of Richard Brautigan and San Francisco, 1966

by Keith Abbott

for Günter Ohnemus?

I first got to know Richard Brautigan in San Francisco in 1966. I had moved from Monterey to San Francisco that spring and I had got a job at Pan American airlines. In Monterey I had run around with Price Dunn?, who had served as a model for Lee Melon, the hero of Brautigan's first published novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur. When Price came up to San Francisco, we drove over to Richard's apartment on Geary Street. He answered the door.

My first impression of Richard was that he looked like a tall slim cross between Mark Twain? and a heron. He turned and led us down a long hallway to his apartment in the back of the slum building. The hallway was lined with old tongue-and-groove shiplap paneling and there were posters of readings hanging all over. I glanced into Richard's writing room and saw a large old IBM typewriter and piles of magazines and manuscripts.

Price and Richard traded jokes. They had several routines to choose from. One was Price's coffee. Richard had only instant coffee. He was too poor to afford any better. Price only used the strongest commercial coffee available, but then he had money from time to time. Price would make "shepherder's coffee." He boiled water in a saucepan, would throw in the coffee on top, turn off the heat and let it steep. Then, when the coffee formed a rich thick scum on the top, he would blow it off into the sink and then add a little cold water. After letting it settle, then he would pour out the coffee into cups. It was electrifying coffee, mainly because Price was an extravagant person and never used too little.

I left them to their routines and went into the bathroom to take a leak. The bathtub had a tear-shaped rust mark under the nozzle. The ceiling plaster was hanging down. Then I saw the royalty statement. It was from Grove Press. Confederate General had sold 743 copies. From its position above the toilet paper I could imagine what Richard thought about this.

At that time Richard had only published three very slim books of poetry plus Confederate General. I was a young writer with no books published, a few poems in literary magazines. So far in my career, I had earned one dollar as a writer. I identified with Richard's situation and for that reason — he was also living in poverty. But we had other things in common.

Both of us had been born in Tacoma, Washington and grew up in the Northwest. We had both left young. We both were Aquarius and given to extravagant thinking. We shared a sense of the lower-class rural life in the Pacific Northwest, although we were ten years apart in age.

In his story, "A Short History of Oregon?," Brautigan ends with a vision of himself as a teenager standing before an isolated house in the woods with rain pounding down. A bunch of ragged children stare at him from the porch. The yard is full of metal debris. He says, "I had no reason to believe that there was anything more to life than this."

That isolation, rain, dark woods and poverty I had fled too. We used to joke about the Indian stories from the Northwest, the long fantastic adventures of Coyote and others. What else is there to do but get out of the rain and fantasize? I felt a kinship with Richard's work because he had solved the problem of what to write about and what to use. If his work is read carefully, it becomes clear how fragile the things of culture are in his work. His style functions with that fragility, in its ability to fantasize change rapidly. To me that is a very Northwestern trait.

We used to joke about the fact that we didn't know anyone who could be called an artist when we grew up. In the hard lower-class life of logging and commercial fishing and "stump-ranching" on poverty-stricken farms, there was no room for art. Once he said to me that he didn't know anyone who was now an artist, who had been given any encouragement when young.

From the homely and shopworn images around him, Brautigan created his art. He was aware of this process. The chapter in Trout Fishing in America about the Kool-Aid wino provides an instance of this self-knowledge. His art insisted on the value of the present living life, no matter how ephemeral or insignificant it might be in accepted cultural terms.

The job was clear: the art had to be self-created. And it had to be created at enormous odds, out of the materials at hand, no matter how banal or one-dimensional or fantastic they might seem. In his first two books, Trout Fishing and Confederate General, the primacy of the will and imagination is insisted on and much of the humor comes from the collision of the learned cultural knowledge with the lived cultural knowledge.

I was very much taken with this view of life. I had attended college in the Northwest for a few years and I had been told that culture was somewhere else, back East, in Europe, and I was given examples very strange to my life in the Northwest. With the exception of Gary Snyder's early poetry, no on else that I was reading in 1966 used the places, names and attitudes of the Northwest to create poetry and fiction. Of course, Snyder was multi-cultural, using Indian myths, Japanese and Chinese models, and anything else that would help him write. With Brautigan's work, the starting place was always very primal. He found ways of seeing famous cultural items in a Northwest down-home perspective. If Leonardo da Vinci lived in America, of course he would invent a fishing lure called "The Last Supper."

But to return to that first day with Richard and Price: we went to Golden Gate Park. We ended up at the Steinhardt Aquarium. By the time we had walked there, the three of us were already creating a stream of running jokes and allusions and inventing myths for each other. Of all of us, Price had the most fantastic imagination. And he was not a writer. The thing about Price's imagination was that he acted on it. There was never a clear line with Price between what was real and what was imagined.

I remember we were standing in front of the tank of garfish when Price crossed the line. That was the first time I had ever seen a garfish. They are a southern fish, found in the rivers. Their huge bodies have an alligator snout tacked to the front of them. Bizarre fish.

"Garfish!" Price shouted. He pushed his way through the tourists and stood there beaming at them, as if they were all buddies of his. "You know we used to catch them down South!" Price shouted back at us. Richard and I drifted in behind him. A few of the spectators began to shift into positions of flight. They didn't like the looks of us, and indeed, they were right.

Richard was wearing his battered gray hat and his vest with various emblems stuck on it. I was in a large white knee-length smock with HIPPO embroidered on the back, and Price was in his usual gear of jeans and a T-shirt with broken granny glasses and curly fizzed hair, looking like a Hell's Angel on a lunch break.

"Gars!" Price hooted again. "Why we used to land them just as big as that. You know how we did it?"

Neither Richard nor I said anything. We were watching the rest of the tourists watching Price. There were a great deal more of them than us and Price's exuberance was sure to offend some of them.

"First you get a corn cob," Price said. People were backing away from him. "And then you get a long bamboo pole, you know the kind. Put a line on it with a hook and then you put the corn cob on the hook and you throw it in the river."

Price waved at the huge 6-foot-long fish swimming around in the tank with the improbable snouts of alligators.

"And when that old gar comes up for the corn cob, you can see them real clear, and hell they're big as a house anyway — so when the gar comes up for your corn cob, you... drop the pole and pick up your rifle and you shoot them!"

Price leaned on the rope separating him from his beloved garfish and the happy memories of blasting them out of the water as the gallery was emptied out behind him. The minute that Price had said he shot the fish, the tourists had fled, sure that he was about to relive those childhood memories with the help of his two weird henchmen, who were probably concealing the guns under their clothes.

Richard and I looked at each other. Both of us had been seasoned Northwestern fishermen, raised with a reverence for trout and the almost chivalric code of catching them. We took Price by the arm and led him away from the gars. We both had the same thought: this was the most bizarre way to get a fish we had ever heard but more than that, you don't shoot fish, you catch them.

The other thing I remember about that first day with Price and Richard was chili dogs. Strange to say, I had never eaten a chili dog before. We were broke, and so we stopped off at the Cable Car Drive-In for something cheap, and Richard pointed out that the chili dogs were the best value for our limited funds.

As a young writer I was fascinated how Richard lived. He had no job except that of a writer. It is no exaggeration to say that in 1966 I had never met a writer who supported himself with his work. All the writers I had met were teachers of some sort, or had jobs doing something else. None of them were just writers. Richard was. Richard tried to live off the money he made from reading his poetry or selling his writing. For me he became an example of a dedicated artist. So what he ate became important and so I became introduced to the chili dog. These chili dogs at the Cable Car Drive-In can now claim their place in American literature for sustaining and nourishing an American writer. I can think of no more fitting monument than a bronze replica, about as tall as Richard, of a Cable Car Chili Dog to commemorate him and his place in San Francisco literary history. And perhaps at the foot, a small concrete replica of an Alka-Seltzer packet.

Of course, at the time, Richard was not famous, only that worst of all possible artists in San Francisco, a local writer. I was living in a back slum apartment myself at 777 Haight Street, just below Divisadero. I was aware of only two writers personally then. Besides Richard, Kenneth Rexroth lived around the corner from me and walked his dogs. I was too shy to go up to him and talk. I had moved into the district because housing was cheap and available. Once I started to walk around the neighborhood, I discovered a lot of people who were similar to me. These people turned out to be hippies, according to the newspapers. At the time, they were simply local people who wanted cheap apartments and pleasant nearby parks to walk in. They were, like Richard, strictly a local phenomenon.

Brautigan's relationship to this phenomenon has been both a blessing and a curse to his work. His work, with its penchant for self-creation and joy, was representative of what people were doing on Haight Street in 1966. (I would not say it had much to do with what people were doing after 1967 in the Haight district.) I am sure that his work would have survived without it, but the fact is that without the audience that was there, it is difficult for me to say that his work would have reached as many people. That is a blessing, a mixed one, but still a blessing.

However, something needs to be made clear about this relationship between Brautigan's work and the hippie scene. Richard had already written his first four novels before 1967. He did not produce those books to cash in on the craze.

As I got to know him, I discovered that he had been on the dole from Grove Press. They had bought his first novel, Trout Fishing, and his second, Confederate General. They had only published Confederate General, in 1964; it sold the aforementioned 743 copies. His third, In Watermelon Sugar, had been rejected, and there remained an option on his fourth, according to his contract. Each dole check put Richard deeper and deeper in debt, and there seemed to be no way out for him.

He left the Grove Press dole when he submitted his fourth novel, The Abortion. He gave them a month to reject or accept it. They rejected it and he took himself off the dole.

I don't know if this account is correct in its details, but at the time I admired him for his courage and his belief in himself. All I am sure of is that Richard was extremely poor at the time I first knew him.

How poor? He would walk over to my apartment on Saturdays or Sundays from Geary Street. The bus fare was only 15¢ but he walked. Once I asked him if he would like a sandwich before we walked up the hill to Haight Ashbury. The way he said yes and the way he ate that peanut butter and jelly sandwich stayed in my mind. From then on I would have some food ready when he dropped by and we would eat a bit before we started on our rambles.

He was very proud and he never said anything about his money situation. Price told me that on rent day Richard would check down at City Lights to see if any of the copies of second and third books of poetry — Lay the Marble Tea and The Octopus Frontier — had sold. (In his writing room I had seen the boxes with copies of the small pamphlets and I had wondered what he did with them.) Then he would make the rounds of North Beach and see if he could put the touch on anyone for some rent money, if he was flat broke and no books had been sold.

I never saw any of this. I loaned him a few dollars from time to time and provided him with transportation. I had a 1951 Chevy truck and after I quit my job at Pan American, Richard and I would roam around San Francisco, meeting his literary friends, Lew Welch?, Don Carpenter?, and Michael McClure?, among others.

We talked literature. He had been influenced by the poet Jack Spicer?, although he only spoke of Spicer as a man and never of his work. He recommended the Greek Anthology to me. His library was a writer's library, only literary works; the rare anthologies or textbooks were ones that were given to him or he had work in. Not surprisingly, he liked precise writers, economical in their means.

One of the poets who he recommended was Kenneth Fearing. He was forgotten by this time and Richard thought his work interesting. Looking back on it, I suppose here might be an example of a writer looking at another writer, who had books published but was forgotten, a minor writer. At the time, Richard had no publisher, he had no agent, and his only published novel was forgotten, and there had to be some fear that this was the way he could go himself, if he didn't have some luck.

It is hard to remember what exactly we did and what exactly was going on that fall in 1966 because that period was so full — every day was an immense adventure for me. I do remember the day I left San Francisco. I was going to Monterey and live on unemployment and start, as it turned out, my first novel, Gush. The night before, one of my old friends from the Northwest had arrived in town.

She had a bag full of diet pills. I took her to two parties, one on Haight Street and one around the corner. I had taken several pills, drank a lot of beer, and smoked two packs of Lucky Strikes while I was showing her the town. The next day I had an alcohol, amphetamine, and nicotine hangover. I felt like death warmed over.

I was in the middle of my apartment, looking at the boxes of stuff, when the doorbell rang. It was Richard. "Need some help moving?" he said. Then he took a closer look at me. He took off his Levi jacket, propped open the front door, and began to pack the boxes down to my truck while I turned in circles in the front room looking for that mysterious box that contained something I needed, badly: a new body and mind.

That day remains memorable for two reasons. The first was that I stopped smoking cigarettes that day. My tongue was raw from all the Lucky Strikes I had smoked while I was ricochetting from party to party. Each time I reached for the pack of cigarettes, my tongue ached. I could not force myself to do it, no matter how badly I wanted the nicotine. I had no choice. I would never smoke again.

The second memorable thing concerns Richard. As he carried my stuff down to my truck, he talked to me. He has always had a deft hand with hangover patients. "You look like walking death," he said. "When I'm done with this, we'll take you out back and shoot you," he said. "Maybe we could just burn you at the stake," he said. "We could take you up to Golden Gate Park and give the simple tourists up there a human torch to look at," he said. "They'll be having a picnic on the grass and the kids will gather around you and say things like, hey daddy, come over here and look at the human torch!"

The whole time he was going up and down the stairs. "I'd say that you'll burn for at least a day," he said, "what with all that leftover alcohol inside you."

His abuse of my delicate condition is not what is memorable about this day, although I remember it quite well. The second reason why this day is memorable is because, on that autumn day in 1966, that was the last day I ever saw Richard do any physical work.

I know that this sounds impossible. But it is true. He has never done any work since that day that I have seen. I have an excellent memory, as this essay proves — even when I am hungover and tormented, my memory still functions. So when I say that he has not lifted a finger since 1966, I have experience and a good memory as my witnesses. By the next time I saw Richard, he was on his way to becoming a famous writer and he had lots of people who were happy to get his groceries, clean his apartment, take out his trash, and peel his grapes for him. Among my acquaintances he has the record: 16 years and running. I remain awed and moved in front of such a record.

Read the second part of this article: "Free Pornography, Media Crush and a Bucket of Clams."

Review of Contemporary Fiction 3(3)
Fall 1983

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